top of page

Can we spot future criminals in kindergarten?

Can we spot criminals in kindergarten?

According to the Dunedin study’s research results, it is indeed possible to spot future criminals as early as at the age of three.

Have you ever wondered at which point in their lives criminals “become” criminals?

Is it something that can be detected in the early years of development?

Can preventative action be taken to prevent future criminal tendencies?

The Dunedin study was started in 1972 by a group of scientists who decided to record the births of all the babies during that specific year in Dunedin, New Zealand. The scientists then continuously and meticulously recorded the group’s developmental information and this longitudinal study became the world’s richest data source in terms of human development. It also infused the debate of nature versus nurture with valuable scientific data.

Professor Terry Moffat is a lead researcher in the Dunedin study and joined the team in 1984. At that point in time, most of the boys in the study were only 13 years old. Interestingly enough, some of them were already engaged in criminal behaviour. Wondering how long these boys have been offending, Professor Moffatt went back into the archives and studied the records of these same boys at the age of 3. She soon saw an emerging pattern.

According to researchers at the time, these kids were challenging to work with – even at the age of 3. Typically, they would run around the room, jump on the furniture and when the asked to do a difficult task, they became overwhelmed and easily gave up. It was almost a general style that these children displayed towards effortful tasks - It just did not appeal to these three-year olds.

These difficult 3-year olds were bullies and were being disliked by other children and adults. Armed with insight into the behaviour of the 13-year-old offenders as 3 year olds, one of the most remarkable findings of the study was that it could accurately predict criminal offending decades later as adults. Professor Moffatt has found a way to spot future criminals as early as in kindergarten!

In her study of delinquent behaviour of teenagers, Professor Moffat identified 2 types of offenders: “Life course persistent offenders” and “Adolescent limited offenders”.

“Life course persistent offenders” is the group of teenagers who keep on offending as adults. They are the same children that Prof Moffatt had identified as potential lawbreakers back in kindergarten. Each new phrase of life that they enter, they seem to pick up antisocial acts in that phase. For example, when they are old enough to start driving, they steal cars, or when they get a job, they embezzle money out of the till. When they get into a relationship, they beat their partner. They seem to transfer their antisocial style right across their life course.

These children normally start out as being very naughty, they tend to be disruptive and loud and they display attention seeking behaviour. Later on, they go around in gangs, pick on others and are very disruptive in general.

Interestingly enough, “Life course offenders” are not only criminals, but they are far more likely to end up on a social benefit and addicted to drugs as they get older and the severity and seriousness of their crimes also seem to increase.

“Adolescent limited offenders” refer to the group of teenagers who engage in

delinquent behaviour, but who are destined to stop offending by the time that they reach their 20’s and then turn into ordinary and well-balanced citizens. These are the ordinary, healthy, happy teenagers, who are just acting out and getting into a bit of trouble. They do not have those difficult temperaments or verbal skill difficulties and are considered “ordinary teenagers”. Under the right circumstances, most “adolescent limited offenders” come right at their own accord.

The key in addressing this issue, is prevention rather than treatment. Many of the offenders in the study have been showing some signs of misbehaviour and conduct problems at a very young age. By not dealing with the problematic behaviour at that moment in time, an opportunity had been missed to prevent a lifetime of chronic antisocial behaviour.

It is in the interest of the child, as well as society as a whole, to identify problematic behaviour amongst toddlers and to address it in collaboration with professional support networks.

Annecke Redelinghuys

BA Psychology; Dip. HED, Dip. Life Coaching, Dip Counselling.

Reference: McNeill, M. (Producer), & Casserly, P., Dol, I., McNeill, M. (Directors). (2015). The Early Years [Television series episode]. In M. McNeill (Executive producer), Predict My Future – The Science Of Us. New Zealand, NZ: SBS On Demand. Available from

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • LinkedIn Social Icon
  • Facebook Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • Pinterest Social Icon
bottom of page